An aerial view of Plum Island File Photo
An aerial view of Plum Island
An aerial view of Plum Island File Photo

Washington — A new effort to sell Plum Island in Long Island Sound has intensified a tug of war that pits Connecticut lawmakers and environmentalists against the federal government, the island’s owner.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture ran biological experiments on animal diseases for decades on the island, working on animal illnesses like swine flu and foot-and-mouth disease, a highly contagious livestock illness.

But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is now in charge of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility on Plum Island and is shutting down operations there and moving the laboratory to Manhattan, Kansas.

As soon as the new lab is operational, Plum Island will go to  the highest bidder. But the General Services Administration, which is in charge of the sale, says it will start a new marketing push now.

Connecticut U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and congressional allies renewed a push this week to prevent the GSA from selling the island. They want it made into a national park or other type of wildlife refuge.

“What is absolutely repugnant about developing Plum Island is that a unique, pristine, natural treasure would be lost,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal sponsored a bill, supported by Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; Chris Murphy, D-Conn.; and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would bar the sale of Plum Island and instead transfer it to another federal agency. There’s a companion bill in the House, sponsored by New York Republicans.

Neither bill has had much momentum yet, but there’s is still some time to garner support for the legislation – the new biolab in Kansas is not expected to be completed until the end 2022, and a new buyer can’t take possession of Plum Island until its operations are moved.

To Blumenthal, not only will wildlife be harmed by a sale, but “one of the biggest byproducts of development is there will be more pollution and more traffic on both sides of the sound.”

In a statement, the GSA said it was working with the Department of Homeland Security to engage in “several regulatory compliance efforts to protect endangered and threatened species, list eligible historic resources on the National Register of Historic Places, assess and protect wetlands, consider effects on the coastal zone, and address the potential presence of residual contamination associated with past uses (of Plum Island.)”

A storied past

Plum Island has a storied past as well as an uncertain future.

It was purchased from local Indians in 1650 by Samuel Willis III, the son of a Connecticut governor, for a coat, a barrel of biscuits and 100 fishhooks. The U.S. government bought the island from private owners in 1899, paying about $90,000.

It was used as an Army base called Fort Terry until 1954, when it was turned into an animal disease facility. The federal government decided to close the facility in 2008 and build a larger, more sophisticated laboratory.

Now the island is 840 acres of prime ocean-front property that some envision as having the allure of the Hamptons.

The GSA described it to prospective buyers this way:

“The island boasts sandy shoreline, beautiful views and a harbor strategically situated to provide easy access” from Orient Point, on the tip of Long Island’s north fork, or elsewhere. “Architectural highlights include a lighthouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places built in 1869 along with buildings and battery stations constructed as part of Fort Terry, a military fort actively used during the buildup to the Spanish-American War and during World War I and World War II. Most of the other buildings and infrastructure on the island are of more modern design and development. Of particular note is a well-maintained 55,000 square-foot-glass and concrete administration building constructed in 1994. In addition to over 4 miles of existing paved roadway and 8 miles of gravel roadway, the island offers strength in its utility connections and capacity…”

Amenities touted by the GSA include undersea cables from Long Island for power and communication, an on-site power plant, a wastewater decontamination plant and an extensive well water supply.

Workers and anyone else given permission to visit the island take a ferry from Old Saybrook or from Orient Point. About 9.5 acres and the ferry landing at Orient Point are included in the sale.

Nipping it in the bud

Jonathan Miller, a real-estate appraiser and researcher specializing in luxury properties, told NPR the island could be worth as much as $1 billion.

Patrick Comins, one of the few people besides lab workers who have been given access to the island, says the island, while wild and beautiful, would not bring taxpayers anywhere near that much money — especially since the town of Southhold, N.Y., has imposed restrictive zoning on the island.

The director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut, Comins toured the island with other naturalists and environmentalists about two years ago in a rare visit. Among other security precautions, visitors were required to leave their cameras behind.

“I was pretty impressed by the bird life I saw there,” he said.

The Audubon Society estimates 219 bird species either breed or stop on the island during migratory flights.

The government’s own environmental impact statements say that a large number of species could be impacted by development on Plum Island, including at least two endangered ones, the piping plover and the roseate tern.

John Turner, spokesman for the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, said there’s an urgency to pulling the island off the market now because “the GSA is still moving forward.”

“We think it’s prudent to nip this in the bud,” he said.

To Turner, existing law allows the GSA to transfer the property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or another federal agency.

Others say the GSA’s plan to ramp up marketing of Plum Island means there’s an urgency to winning approval of Blumenthal’s legislation or stopping the sale through other means, including lawsuits.

“We need to stop it now before the momentum of the sale gets bigger,” said Chris Cryder, special projects coordinator for Save the Sound.

One person who has publicly shown interest in the island is billionaire developer and GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump who has suggested he might pay $100 million for it. He thinks it would be a great site for a golf course.

The GSA has said there’s a lot of interest in the island, but the agency and the Department of Homeland Security “have yet to finalize any terms and conditions of the sale.”

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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